Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: If your wish is for the wild, St Kilda will fulfil it

It is the remotest part of the British Isles, 40 miles into the Atlantic

A A A

Why are so many people drawn to wildness, and wild places? Is it some inner dissatisfaction with our own nature as humans, some unspoken, hardly acknowledged guilt that there is a dark side to us as a species, and that what we touch rarely turns to gold? For by wild, we tend to mean places unhandled by us, free from our malign influence, and the less touched they are, the wilder we perceive them to be and the more we admire them; few now share the credo of classical gardeners that nature is there to be improved upon.

But what is it that we are looking for, in the shrinking number of wild places, if and when we can find them? Unspoiled beauty, certainly, and the bliss of solitude, and peace; but I have a sense that there is something more, a hunger or a longing, and perhaps that is to do with the quite astonishing fecundity of the natural world in its natural – that is, pre-human – state: the Garden of Eden, teeming with life, from which we were cast out.

Eden's a powerful fable. But as a myth it's only a few thousand years old, and I think the longing for nature in its pristine state is much older. Remember, we have been computer operators for a single generation, and workers in offices for about three; but we were farmers for 400 generations, and before that we were hunter-gatherers for perhaps 20,000.

In the course of all those millennia, where we lived as one with the natural world, so much about it seems to have infused itself into our genes, from our liking for panoramic views to our fear of snakes; maybe, deep in our tissues, there is a memory too of a world where life was abounding, with great herds of animals roaming the plains and endless shoals of fishes crowding the seas, most of which, of course, we have destroyed.

There are not many places where you can get a sense of this, in Britain at least, but one of them, I found three weeks ago visiting with my children, is St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, the small archipelago of four islands more than 40 miles out into the Atlantic from the Hebrides.

Despite its isolation. St Kilda was occupied for centuries by a community of about 100 who lived mainly on seabirds, gannets, fulmars and puffins, which they harvested by scaling the precipitous sea cliffs. It was always a tough life and in the early part of the 20th century, as the attractions of modern living began to draw the community's young people away, it got too tough; in 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants asked to be taken off, and were resettled in mainland Scotland.

The melancholy of this story has captured imaginations ever since and is a principal reason why people return to see the remains of the settlement at Village Bay on Hirta, the largest island, with its "main street" of abandoned houses now lovingly looked after by the National Trust for Scotland; to gaze on the relics of the village on the edge of the world.

But there is another reason to go to St Kilda, and that is its wildness, for despite the remnants of its community, despite even the small military base, it is a place which in essence feels untouched. You sense that, sailing around all the islands, Hirta, Dun and Soay, astonishingly green in their deep blue sea, but most of all at Boreray, four miles out, home to the biggest gannet colony in the world: perhaps 100,000 of the great white birds are in the air above you, jostling, calling, diving, being harassed by skuas, while below there are cliffs full of guillemots and razorbills and rafts of puffins on the water.

Here is the profusion of life that our distant ancestors knew, the natural abundance of which we maybe still have a memory, which calls to us, insistent, over the millennia. Going to St Kilda feels more than a journey, it feels like a pilgrimage, especially if, in your wish for wild places, you are searching for something, as all pilgrims are; for if your longing is for the world before we altered it, this is where it will be fulfilled.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@mjpmccarthy

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable